Christopher Nolan has so far formulated a nice resume for himself. Insomnia proved that he has what it takes to be a successful mainstream director. But Memento is what got Nolan's name out on the front page. It wasn't a major motion picture, but word-by-mouth reviews quickly spread the news regarding one of the most underrated movies of 2001.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pierce) is an insurance claims investigator. But his occupation doesn't come into play until later in the movie. It opens up with a slow motion shot of him, who also goes by the name "Lenny" shaking a Polaroid picture. But the grizzly image doesn't develop, it fades. And for the entire first scene, the movie plays out in complete reverse.
The best thing about Memento is that so few movies exercise the mind the way this movie does. Memento make you think about everything. Most movies today insult us with redundant plots that expect us to figure out what we already know. I wonder who Reese Witherspoon eventually marries in Sweet Home Alabama? I mean, the guy from New York is rich. Anyway, you've got to pay attention to EVERY scene, probably because the movie starts from the end and works backwards in chronology. But the movie still moves forward, which is probably what makes it confusing. You see a scene move forward in normal time and direction, and then you jump back to a scene that took place before it. A black and white transfer is used to help you remember where one act ends and another begins. It takes a few scenes to get adjusted to, thus you may miss a little during the beginning, but Memento is worth watching twice. Here's some advice: Remember everything that happens and everything that is said, because you won't know what it means until the next scene. It doesn't help to learn the resolution when you've forgotten what happened in the scene before.
But there's a reason why Nolan brilliantly went in this direction. Lenny has a condition that prevents him from making new memories and from retaining anything long enough to store into long term memory. Therefore he writes notes, and tattoos important facts all over his body so he can remember what was happening five minutes ago, and why he is seeking revenge. One night, his wife was brutally raped and murdered. The last thing he remembers is seeing her dying on the floor before taking a blow to the head that induced the injury.
Lenny's organized system of note and picture taking have allowed him to track his wife's killer, even though he forgets everything after only a few minutes. The characters that are introduced throughout, both good and bad, complicate Lenny's task and makes it more difficult. His only way of knowing who he can trust is by reading a self-written note on the back of their picture. Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) confronts Lenny with information that will help him, and does it because he did something for her earlier. What that was is something we don't find out, (the reason for the movie going backwards) until Lenny is reminded of it. Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) is another character trying to help him out, but he may not be as friendly as Lenny first thought. In order to remember his impressions of Teddy later, Lenny scribbles a note or two on the back of his picture.
Memento isn't your typical movie where the hero and the villain shoot it out with each other until the end. The suspense doesn't come from car chasing and wall climbing, but from Lenny desperately trying to find a pen in order to write down valuable information he learned before he forgets it, and it is lost forever.
We are later told of two clients that Lenny once dealt with before his accident. Sammy has the same condition, and as Lenny narrates for us, has no system for allowing himself to continually update himself every time his mind blanks out. His wife is frustrated, and wants Lenny to believe that her husband isn't faking his confusion. Ironically, Lenny doesn't buy it. She eventually becomes so skeptical at one point, that she gives Sammy a test so she can find out for sure. That was one of the more emotional parts of the movie. Lenny shows very little pain whenever he recalls his wife's death, and he doesn't let emotion distract him from his goal of finding the mysterious killer.
What's even more interesting, is that the killer may be one of Lenny's associates. Perhaps Lenny found out who he was, but forgot about it before he could do anything. What if Lenny is being tricked by one of his friends who is falsely telling him something, or gives him the wrong impression? The notion that one event can destroy the entire process is kind of confounding. It's like solving a very long algebra problem. Once you mess up somewhere in the middle, the rest will make no sense and give you a wrong answer in the end.
Lenny gets sympathy from nobody. His friends tell him awful things about his wife, only because he will forget about those remarks and will not think twice about it. The motel manager charges him for an extra room, because he can only be certain of whatever he writes down. Whether it's for amusement or financial gain, everyone finds a way to take advantage of him. There is a sense of loneliness in the fact that Lenny only knows and trusts himself, and even that proves to be faulty.
Memento is a fun movie that is smarter and more clever than the majority of films produced within the last few years. By starting from the end, you are as clueless as Lenny is when you see the shattered car window, only finding out what happened to it when you eventually get to that part in the sequence of events.
The movie sort of stops at the end. But Memento is one those where you immediately start thinking when you finally get the chance. By the time you either piece everything together or realize you've been defeated and lost the entire way, the credits have already passed and you're staring at a white screen. From here, you either congratulate yourself on picking out a good flick to watch, or you hit rewind and start it from the beginning--I mean the end.